- Historic Sites
A Summer’s Wait
A young poet’s memories of the old rural America in whose fields he worked for two sunny months while awaiting the call to service in the First World War
June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
This is all the “help” I have to describe, with the exception of a sort of loon who came back from Royal one evening with Bowen and plowed corn with us for two weeks. I have forgotten his name. We called him “The Michigander.” He had left a wife and child in northern Michigan among the stumps and patches of white sand, and had strayed southwards in search of employment. It seemed that his potato crop in Michigan had failed three successive seasons, and that he was desperate. He was a wild, theatrically-minded fellow, who swaggered and swore more earnestly than anyone I have ever known. He lied, no doubt, almost every time he parted his lips, but for the most part he was a picturesque liar. His last act before leaving Michigan was to lead his one poor, blind, stumbling horse back over the hill and shoot it. He would often stop his team abreast of his malignant step-father, whom he had been of a mind to kill, and whom indeed he may have killed along with the horse, for all I can say. He left as suddenly as he had appeared, walking off hastily towards Royal with his great, bursting suitcase full of dirty clothes.
I must not neglect to give a full account of the horses. I can scarcely do justice to them as comrades, but I can at least name them. I loved them in all sincerity—at least, such of them as I loved at all I loved sincerely. I never had known any horses so well before. These I came to feel a proprietary interest in. There were numberless thoughts which I could not communicate to Bowen or Moler. The horses seemed to understand a great deal. I hope I did not indulge myself too much with them. I was never maudlin. Yet it is true that, standing at their heads and stroking their noses or talking into their ears, I felt almost none of the loneliness and isolation which I frequently felt in the fields, or at Mrs. Bowen’s table, or in the middle of the night when I chanced to awake.…
Charlie and Baldy were a team of horses. Charlie was large, square, patient, strong, and extremely simple. Baldy was my favorite among all the animals of the place. He was a huge grey draft horse built on the English plan, with a heavy head, a round, bald nose, large eyes, a loosely flapping lower lip, hairy jaws, a slender neck, a trunk by no means graceful, and long square legs weighted with shaggy feet. At a trot he was a ludicrous spectacle—something like an elephant at play. But Prank informed me that horses of his breed were not built to trot or run—only to walk. Walk he could superbly. He was the fastest and most willing walker on the farm. His energy was boundless. His mouth was tender, and his feelings were easily hurt. Nerves in so large and awkward a beast seemed out of place at first. But they were what eventually made him my favorite. Once going, he was steady and efficacious in a stupendous degree. Kate and Jin were a team of tall, handsome gray mules whom Dad had bought a year before for $500. They were mated perfectly in appearance, but in disposition they were as different as brews and good wines are supposed to be. Kate had a threatening eye, which frequently justified its cast by inspiring a nasty kick from the heels. She was a self-centered, over-sexed creature, whose brain must have been boiling night and day with dreams and images of amorous jacks. For whole days she would stand and work her jaws in a strange, lickerish way which was as irritating to us as it was curious. This was “horsing,” Bowen said. Why mules are endowed with any sexual desires at all I know not. Tantalus was positively comfortable, I should say, in comparison. Jin, on the contrary, was a placid, even sunny old wife, who was faithful and sensible in every particular, and in addition could walk almost as fast as Baldy down the corn-rows.
Jim was a black carriage horse whom Dad had accepted from Doctor Bartholaw of Urbana in part payment for a lot, I think, in the Van Doren addition. Bowen drove him to his surrey until he bought his Ford, after which Jim ran free all day. He was a highstrung steed who had seen better days, and perhaps saner days. We thought him “locoed” upon certain occasions. There was no living with the other horses for him. Whether his aristocratic veins heated him to a fury of contempt cannot be said, but it was evident from the first that he would kick or run them into a frenzy if left long in the same pasture.…
Dad and Jack were small, neat, black mules whom Moler drove. They were the “handiest” animals on the farm: very graceful, very steady, and very wise.
Nell was a sturdy, hysterical white mare. Frank was her colt, working for the first time this summer. I named him after our Frank. He was a tall, freckled gray, overgrown fellow, absolutely good and absolutely lazy. He had no notion at any time where his feet would be planted next, nor any desire to know that critical fact. He was lovable in his guilelessness, but exasperating in his lack of passion, and it was quite beyond his comprehension that anyone should become enraged at him as I confess I often did.
“The Broncho” was an amazing piece. She was old, perhaps the oldest thing on the place, but she had lost not one jot of her fiery resentment towards the conqueror man. She submitted to the harness but worked out her passion in a frenzy of prancing and plunging and sweating. She was tiny. No harness would fit her. Any bridle fell loosely and often ludicrously, over her burning black eyes. She was most tragically out of her element. She should never have been tamed, but should be running free this minute on the western plains, the incarnation of female littleness and fury.